PARSHAT KORACH

DEBATE FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”  (Numbers 16:3)

            Like most of us, I watched the debate last week between President Biden and former President Trump.  I do not wish to comment on the performance of the two men; enough has been said.  Rather, I want to look at a deeper question, some would say a meta-question about the debate.  It is directly tied to the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.  Was it a debate for the sake of heaven?

            This week’s portion begins with a challenge to Moses by his cousin Korach and a group of his followers.  They claim Moses is unworthy of leadership.  According to the Midrash (Rabbinic interpretation), they argue about trivial points of Jewish law.  Korach argues, “A tallis requires four fringes, one thread of blue, in the four corners.  But what about a garment made entirely of blue threads with no fringes?  Is that kosher?”  When Moses replied no, Korach tells Moses his law is ridiculous.  Of course, the entire argument is not about a blue tallis but rather it is a power struggle, with Korach attempting to undermine Moses’ authority.

            The Rabbis in the Talmud claim that there are two kinds of arguments, those for the sake of heaven and those not for the sake of heaven.  To quote the full passage (Avot 5:17): “Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven – it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.”

            Hillel and Shammai were two Rabbinic leaders who argued over multiple points of Jewish law, but with the greatest respect for one another.  When the argument was over, they married into one another’s families.  Korach and his followers argued with Moses with no respect; it was a powerplay by Korach to undermine Moses’ authority.  Reading the portion, in the end Moses wins, and the ground opens up to swallow Korach and his followers.  (Having grown up in earthquake prone California, I am always super-sensitive about this image of the ground opening up.)

            That brings me to not only last week’s debate, but most of the political arguments I have watched over the last few years.  It was not an argument over what policies would be best for our country.  It was an argument to undermine the legitimacy, authority, and even the humanity of the opponent.  Reasonable people can argue about immigration, abortion, foreign policy, or the economy.  They can strongly disagree but still respect each other as human beings.  But I found this debate to be filled with what philosophers call ad hominem attacks, attacking the person rather than the idea.  I turned off the television after the debate with a deep sense that, to quote the Talmud, this argument was not for the sake of heaven.    

            I think what drove the issue home for me most strongly is that the two candidates refused to shake hands with each other, either at the beginning or end of the debate.  If shaking hands were the custom in Biblical times, Moses would not have shaken hands with Korach.  If shaking hands were the custom in Talmudic times, Hillel certainly would have shaken hands with Shammai.  Two people can respect each other’s dignity, even if they strongly disagree on their policies.

            The political season is beginning.  There will be more debates, and then there will be an election.  I will listen, and then I will vote for the candidate who I believe will be best for this country.  I can only pray that the candidates, even if they disagree on issues, will respect the humanity of one another.  I pray that future debates will be for the sake of heaven.